It's almost 1:00 a.m. on a Friday summer night. I wake and realize my son is not in the house. I text, “Where u?” He replies, “Walking Pokémon.” Our neighborhood is safe, so I don’t worry. Still, what kind of game would compel a young person to take to the streets after everyone else is soundly slumbering?
Pokémon GO is the free app for Android and iOS that was launched on July 6, 2016, by Niantic, a company that spun out of Google. July 6 was a Wednesday. By Friday, the popularity of the game exploded. News stories appeared chronicling the misadventures of Pokémon GO players including the inadvertent discovery of three bodies in disparate spots and the story of two men who pursued their Pokémon off a bluff above a beach near San Diego. Indeed, by July 13, SurveyMonkey called Pokémon GO “the biggest U.S. mobile game ever” (“Pokémon GO Usage Statistics Say It’s Biggest U.S. Mobile Game Ever,” Robbie Allan, SurveyMonkey Intel ligence, July 12 2016; surveymonkey.com/business/intelligence/pokemon-GO-usage-statistics).
What makes this game so wonderful is that it bridges the gap between the real and the virtual world. It uses smartphone geolocation to track players on a map as they walk around. Occasionally, an animated Pokémon monster ap pears on the phone screen. With a tap, the player focuses on the character, which activates the phone camera. The map animation drops away, and the player sees the ani mated Pokémon floating in the camera’s real-world view. An animated “Poké Ball” appears at the base of the screen. With a swipe, the player flings the ball at the Pokémon, attempting to catch it. Once players have caught enough Pokémon, they may walk to a “gym” (often a church, library, or bar) to battle for dominance. On the way, they might pause at a “PokéStop,” usually a local landmark, to pick up some more Poké Balls (pokemon.com/us/pokemon-video-games/pokemon-GO).
This mix of real and game worlds, known as “augmented reality,” or AR, in which computer images are superimposed on a view of the real world, has lured young people off the couch and into the neighborhood. Pokémon GO takes advantage of the technology available on our modern mobile phones: GPS, clock, fast 4-G network, touchscreens, and the camera. Vox’s editor-in-chief Ezra Klein says, “Pokémon GO isn’t really a game. It’s a new technology” (July 12, 2016; vox.com/2016/7/12/12152776/pokemon-GO-augmented-reality-beginning).
In his post “Pokémon GO Isn’t a Fad. It’s a Beginning,” Kline quotes venture capitalist Chris Dixon: “The next big thing will start out looking like a toy.” Pokémon GO is a game, but it’s also “the first widespread, massive use case for augmented reality—even though it’s operating on smartphones that aren’t designed for AR.”
Jack Karsten and Darrell M. West of the Brookings Insti tution agree. “Pokémon GO is more than just a game—it’s a primitive portal into technology that is transforming our world,” they write. “Pokémon GO uses augmented reality (AR) and GPS to connect to real-world places, creating a cartoon-monster scavenger hunt with profound implications” (“Why Pokémon GO’s Technology Is No Fad,” July 22, 2016; brookings.edu/blogs/techtank/posts/2016/07/22-pokemon-GO-technology-no-fad). And it runs for free on equipment that many already own.